Saturday, 5 October 2013

Book burning - on libricide and the art of biblioclasm

So I read a review of Prince of Thorns on Goodreads recently wherein a promise was made:

Out of the thousands of books I've (literally) read, this is easily one of the worst, if not THE worst.


I can promise that 

a) I will burn the book

and b) I will never, ever, own or otherwise read something by this author again.

I can update this with an incident of Prince of Thorns inspired near-biblioclasm from from 2015:

i read 1 and 1/2 chapter and i gave up. it is awfull. i don't know why i took it from the libary they should burn it

There are two sides to this coin, one funny, one dark, and whilst I'll address both I should point out that my reaction was one of amusement. I posted about the review and I expect it will sell me more books than the next ten 5* reviews that crop up. In fact only hours ago somebody posted:

"I just spent an hour reading one star reviews of your book on goodreads and I've decided to bump it higher on my to read list."

My immediate concern was that the person was only burning the one copy - a nice big pile of hardcovers would make a really decent blaze and I'm sure the publisher would have given some kind of bulk discount...

Perhaps you've not really arrived as an author until someone has burned a copy of your book? Certainly many writers spend long hours honing their craft so that they can elicit strong reactions from their readers. If you're writing something that challenges, that provokes, and that takes a reader through highs and lows into dark places then you might well expect some fraction of the emotional responses to spin off in directions other than that intended. I suppose if my books left their readers unmoved I would be far less happy than with a mix of ecstatic praise and of reaching for pitchforks, tar, and feathers.

The other side of this coin that I've well and truly spent is the visceral horror many people feel about the burning of books. It's an iconic act of desecration that's heavy with the worst of associations. Perhaps the most infamous and recent examples have been the Nazis' organised burning of books they disapproved of, but history is stained with other examples dating back as far as the written word has been set upon anything that's flammable.

Generally the target for these incidents have been non-fiction, works espousing beliefs that the perpetrators cannot abide or risk contaminating others. I guess some fiction may have been in the mix too - certainly story telling has been used as a vehicle for ideas before, and ideas can be seen as dangerous.

I guess my reviewer in this instance is just using the burning as an expression of contempt, akin to using the pages for lavatorial purposes. It's my hope that they'll film the deed and stick it on youtube - I could use the publicity. But it's an interesting issue to me that in these days where our stories are truly indestructible, being endlessly reproduced in the flow of electrons across the world, that we still resort to such basics as fire when a story upsets us...

Anyhow - to conclude - two polls (click on them to vote):

1) Have you ever burned a work of fiction as an expression of disapproval of its contents?

2) Can you anticipate circumstances where you might burn a work of fiction to register disapproval?


  1. No such luck for me I'm afraid. People occasionally say my books are unfunny and a bit rubbish, but nobody ever seems to get righteously offended. Actually, I've always been braced for someone to say that I'm trivialising war or the British Empire, or insulting the people of somewhere-or-other, but it's never come. People must realise that I'm joking, fortunately.

    I can't imagine burning a book, especially when there's a bin nearby. It seems such an elaborate thing to do, as if you're excommunicating the book instead of chucking it out - rather like burning witches at the stake instead of just killing them. In the case of books I really didn't like, or thought were pushing immoral arguments (and they're rare), it would feel like giving the book too much respect, and I'd just throw the thing away. But then there are very few books like that. Most of the bad ones are bad because they're rubbish, not because they're evil.

    Besides, even leaving Hitler out, it's an uncomfortable concept. Is burning a book in some way attacking all literature, or the freedom of the press, as well as the individual work? It reminds me of The Satanic Verses, Copies sold - loads. Copies burned - quite a lot. Copies read - er...

  2. There are some books that I have absolutely loathed, that I've hurled across the room in disgust before consigning to the trash, but I can't imagine ever making an event out of a burning.

  3. I confess I burned my very own notations of chemistry after getting my A levels. A photo was included in the traditional newspaper for this event and was reviled by the whole school staff as an act of barbarism and immaturity. I realize this is a somewhat different kind of book burning and I actually didn't burn any book. No, I never did and probably will never burn a book for its content, no matter how bad and offensive it might be. From Mein Kampf to Orson Scott Card's anti-gay tirades books are safe from me. This said, I have a neighbor who throws books away to prevent his daughters from reading about anything so that they don't get stupid ideas. Sigh.

  4. I value books too much to *ever* burn a book. That's a political act, and its a politics that I cannot abide. Throw away, yes, but to burn a book is beyond the pale.

    He who would burn a book is no friend of mine.

  5. One does not simply burn one's iPad.
    And besides, what is a critic but a thing that assumes it knows more about that which it has never succeeded in than he who has?

  6. I've never burned fiction, but like Longasc I did burn my Spanish notebook (the one I wrote in) after completing my GCSEs. I did not like the teacher at all. As for anticipating a circumstance under which I might burn fiction, yes - if I wrote it and became particularly displeased with it, I might possibly burn a prinout of it.

  7. I would never burn a book - books are living things I believe. So burning a book is like burning a living thing - absolutely inconceivable for me. There are plenty of people I find contempt-worthy but I don't try to burn them, right? Because where's life there is hope. :D

    As far as expressions of contempt go - the best way to express contempt I think is to return the book to the shop and get your money back. Destroying a book you purchased is like burning your own money! Destroying a book like that means you are giving it some respect.. Why would I wan to give respect to something contempt-worthy?

    And bookshops do take books back if you make enough fuss. I returned my copy of "Breaking dawn" (of Twilight saga) which was IMHO the worst book ever written, and Borders took it back returned my money. I believe quite few people did the same which made for good contempt stories in the media.

  8. Biblioclasm is my new favourite word.

    I can't say I would ever burn a book, I'm far too possessive (probably a trait brought on by my somewhat underprivileged background) and the thought of destroying anything I had paid good money for is so foreign. I have books on my shelf that I hated, but they still look pretty and are a part of my collection.

    Although in saying all that, I would be sorely tempted if it were a copy of Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed. Thankfully I read the eBook ...

  9. Actually I will admit to tearing up a book and recycling the paper! For me this is as close as it comes to burning. I have never admitted to this act but obviously as the internet is so private and I remain anonymous I feel comfortable telling everyone that it was a pornographic novel that described drug taking and rape in such unpleasant terms that I felt I was doing everyone a favour by removing the book from circulation

  10. Books tend to come in all shapes and sizes, but i believe that one should never burn a book. If you feel you've come to a point in your life where you don't feel the need to waste money on books you're not sure will be the "greates read" of your life, then do the next best thing. Get a library card and check them out from there. You'll save your money and if you hate the book just return it and forget about it. I would also reomnd donating the books you'd like to either burn or throw away. After all, one persons trash can be another person treasure!

  11. There are books I have just stopped reading because they did not inspire interest (sorry Markus Heitz but my book mark has never moved beyond page 376 out of 736 of Dwarves and it was a struggle to get that far)

    There is writing out and about on the internet that horrifies with its awfulness of premise - my daughter showed me one that had a love interest between a time travelling Adolf Hitler and Jesus - I kid you not.

    But to believe a book can corrupt (and maybe some can) is to have no faith in the discrimination of the reader and if the world were ever that hopeless then the answer is education and discussion not bonfires and censorship.

  12. It's one thing ebooks will never be able to beat. There's just nowhere near the same satisfaction as deleting an ebook when compared to burning one. Unless you decide to burn your ebookreader as well, which could be quite dangerous but an even better expression of contempt.
    The only book burning I've attended was when a friend of mine decided to burn all his notes from school upon completing his exams. It was cathartic.

  13. "There are no words to describe how completely awful this book is. I have on more than one occasion, been left disappointed after a great deal of hype surrounding a particular novel or series. Never in my life have I come across a novel with such great critique that sucked so completely out loud and with such strong conviction."

    Amazon user jwinch2 on Gene Wolfe's Shadow and Claw.

    I wouldn't worry about it. There are plenty of idiots out there.

  14. I've never burned a book, though like other commenters I've thrown one out. Only ever the one. I'm not averse to sex 'n' violence, and commit quite a lot of it myself, fictionally speaking; but with this particular serial killer book, I got the feeling the author was enjoying the exceptionally brutal murders as much as his protagonist was. It was just an instinctive, chill-in-the-spine thing, and into the trashcan it went.

    I happen to know that my own books have been burned, but that was personal, not political. *shrug*

    There's a good way to cheer yourself up on Goodreads (as Mike implies above) - if I get a particular stinker of a review, I go and look up the reviews for any book I've read that I just *know* is damn good, and not just in my opinion: critically acclaimed, popular, a word-of-mouth triumph, you know, whatever. You can always guarantee someone, somewhere hated it, and will have posted a bilious review. That's quite heartening, really!

  15. "I've (literally) read..." I'm trying, and failing, to imagine reading a book figuratively. As for burning, unfortunately, a beloved copy of a book by a great children's author got soaked in storage from a leaking roof at my mother's and became a solid block of black mould, pages fused together, before I discovered the damage. There was no saving it. Burning it seemed a more dignified end than tossing it in the garbage. My replacement copy had a horrible cover and just isn't the same.

  16. Have you ever tried to burn a book? It's actually more difficult than you'd imagine. It's very dense, and the pages end up choking the fire out a bit...

    Okay, I've actually burned books, but that's because that's how we dispose of our garbage in these rural areas, and because the books were moldy and came from an auction. I always try to save and pass on books, whether in my own collection, to friends, the library, or selling them at fleamarkets.

    One book I wrote a blog post about "why" I burned it.It was some dieting book rife with all kinds of undertones that aren't healthy. But even though I tried to make a statement out of it, I still wasn't burning it just because I didn't like the message. It was moldy.